HyperGeertz Introduction

This file is part of HyperGeertz©WorldCatalogue(HTM)
and contains a copy of an online-text by William Kelly (Yale) on Clifford Geertz and his interpretive anthropology.

* HyperGeertz is a protected Hypertext-Trademark (HTM) by Austrian law (UrhRG 1936 idgF 2006, Par. 21 & 24 iVm 40a).


William Kelly (Yale University)


Clifford Geertz (1926-), 

from Talcott Parsons to Gilbert Ryle:

The rise of interpretive anthropology


Geertz followed Boas and Benedict and overlapped with Margaret Mead as our discipline's most well-known public figure.  Like Mead, his career has largely been tangential to university department anthropology.  For several autobiographical musings (Geertz himself called such occasions "crafted candor and public self-concealment" [2000:8]), see


1.  Among the features of his career, note the following:



1951-1952:                                         intensive study of Indonesian during weekends

7/52 to 10/52:                                     to the Netherlands for Dutch language training

10/52 to 5/53:                                     in Jogjakarta (Jav. court town) studying Javanese

5/53 to 9/54:                                       then fieldwork in "Modjokuto" (after an initial fiasco)

10/54 to 8/55:                                     the "write-up" for nine months back at MIT



Actually it was Religions of Java that Geertz wrote as his (700 p.) dissertation and final project report (pared down to 400 pages in published form).  Then he quickly drafted Agricultural Involution and Social History of an Indonesian Town, which he finished later for publication. After a stint of replacement teaching at Harvard, 1955-1956, he was back to Bali with Hildred Geertz in 1957-1958, intending to do triangular study of Java through four months each in Hindu Bali, Islamic Minangabau, and Christian Sumatra.  However, military agitations forced them back to Bali for the whole term. It was ten days after moving to the Balinese village of Tihingan in April of 1958 that they were caught up in watching the local cockfight that was the subject of his famous essay.


On their return from Bali, Clifford and Hildred Geertz went to the Palo Alto Institute for Advanced Study, where they continued writing up. In 1960, he moved to the University of Chicago, where he was to spend the decade, although his appointment was for the most part on a new interdisciplinary program, the Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations, which freed him from teaching.


Comparison was one of the hallmarks of his analytical orientation. Peddlers and Princes (1963) took up the issue of cultural conditioning of economic development by comparing the Javanese town of Modjokuto with the Balinese town of Tabanan. Agricultural Involution (also 1963) was a cultural ecological comparison, in the vein of Julian Steward, of Java as part of intensively cultivated wet-rice Inner Indonesia and Borneo and Sumatra, the extensively cultivated dry-rice Outer Indonesia. Social History of an Indonesian Town (1965)...., 


Although Geertz was largely free of teaching responsibilities, he did involved himself in the Department, especially in pushing for a new curriculum, which came to be known as "symbolic anthropology," by which meaning and the vehicles of meaning were at the center of ethnography and theorizing. [Geertz insists that he himself has always preferred the term interpretive anthropology.] It was when Geertz was at Chicago that Sherry Ortner arrived as a graduate student (and thus begins her 1984 as "Anthropology Since the Sixties").


Meanwhile, he wanted a wider comparative frame and cast about for possibilities.  He couldn't go back to Indonesia, and considered alternatives like the Philippines, Uganda, and Bengal (Hindu/Muslim towns on either side of the border).  Again, a passing suggestion at the 1963 ASA summit led them to Morocco in 1964, to which they returned for extended fieldwork in 1965-1967.  Note the research design of overlapping stays; three graduate students kept it covered through 1971.


In 1970, he was the first social scientist elected to the Institute for Advanced Study (economist Albert Hirschman, philosopher Michael Walzer, and historian Joan Scott were later added).  Even today they (and a few others) constitute a small minority wing among natural scientists.  At the Institute, tough, Geertz found a permanent home, and has remained for three decades.


Note, finally, Geertz's own reflections on the dynamics of his careeróat once accidental but also single-minded:


"I learn by going, the poet Theodore Roethke once wrote, though he was talking about something else, where I have to go.  Becoming an anthropologist is not, or anyway has not been for me, an induction into an established profession, like law, medicine, or the flying of airplanes, already there, graded and subdivided, waiting to hammer one into slot-ready shape. My wandering among programs, projects, committees, and institutes, with only the odd stop-off at anthropology departments, is admittedly a bit unstandard; not a recipe everyone will find attractive. But the picture of a career less followed than assembled, put together in the course of effecting it, is not now so altogether unusual.î (1995:133-135)



2.  Geertz and the formulation of an interpretive anthropology


From "Form and Variation..." through his mid-1960s publications, Geertz was gradually articulating a commitment to interpretation that gained widespread attention with his first collection of many of these essays and articles, The Interpretation of Cultures (cf. Freud), which appeared in 1973.  An early indication of his formulation of culture-as-text (really, cultures-as-assemblages-of-texts) came at the end of Social History of an Indonesian Town, to which he appended a section on "A Village Election as a Social Document."  His use of social document was borrowed from Harold Garfinkel:


"In this approach a single naturally coherent social phenomena, a found event of some sort, is interpreted not so much as an index of a particular underlying pattern as in most quantitative work, nor yet again as the immediate substance of that pattern itself, as in most ethnographic work, but rather as a unique, individual, peculiarly eloquent actualizationóan epitomeóof it." (1965:153-4; also quoted in Moore 1997:241]


The Interpretation of Cultures reprinted work that went back to the late 1950s, but he wrote especially for the volume an opening essay that quickly became a founding statement of his interpretive anthropology, "Thick Description: Towards and Interpretive Theory of Culture," in which he proclaimed:


"The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate, is essentially a semiotic one.  Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.  It is explication I am after, construing social expressions on their surface enigmatical." (1973:5)


"Thick description" is a term he borrows from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, and Geertz, famously, cites Gilbert Ryle's example of winking and twitching (ibid.: 6-7).


"Culture is public because meaning isÖ The generalized attack on privacy theories of meaning is, since early Husserl and late Wittgenstein, so much a part of modern thought that it need not be developed once more here.  What is necessary is to see to it that the news of it reaches anthropology; and in particular that it is made clear that to say that culture consists of socially established structures of meaning in terms of which people do such things as signal conspiracies and join them or perceive insults and answer them, is no more to say that it is a psychological phenomenon, a characteristic of someone's mind, personality, cognitive structure, or whatever than to say that Tantrism, genetics, the progressive form of the verb, the classification of wines, the Common Law, or the notion of 'a conditional curse'Ö is." (1973:12-13)¥


"The main source of theoretical muddlement in contemporary anthropology is a view whichÖ is right now very widely heldónamely, that, to quote Ward Goodenough, perhaps its leading proponent, 'culture [is located] in the minds and hearts of men.'  Variously called ethnoscience, componential analysis, or cognitive anthropology (a terminological wavering which reflects a deeper uncertainty), this school of thought holds that culture is composed of psychological structures by means of which individuals or groups of individuals guide their behavior.  'A society's culture,' to quote Goodenough again, in a passage which has become the locus classicus of a whole movement, 'consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members.'  And from this view of what culture is follows a view, equally assured, of what describing it isóthe writing out of systematic rules, an ethnographic algorithm, which, if followed, would make it possible so to operate, to pass (physical appearance aside) for a native.  In such a way, extreme subjectivism is married to extreme formalism, with the expected result: an explosion of debates as to whether particular analyses (which come in the form of taxonomies, paradigms, tables, trees, and other ingenuities) reflect what the natives 'really' think or are merely clever simulations, logically equivalent but substantively different." (1973:11)  [This paragraph is quoted by Strauss/Quinn 1997:254 as crucial to the banishment, not only of cognitive anthropology, but of all psychologizing in anthropology.]


The point of anthropological inquiry and its representation in ethnography is the understanding of the local forms and frames of understanding, the symbolic codes and meaningful conventions that make life possible.


"Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of 'construct a reading of') a manuscriptóforeign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sounds but in transient examples of shaped behavior." (1973:10)


In effect, Geertz's position has three aspects:

  1. the interpretive/hermeneutic:  Geertz is in a tradition of Rickert, Dilthey, Heidegger, Ricoeur, Schutz, Wittgenstein.  Dilthey: German romantic reaction to rationalism and instrumentality of Enlightenment; action is creative and emotive; experience is the central fact of existence, therefore we are trying, foremost, to understand ourselves; but this creates a problem, the problem for Dilthey, of order.  If our primary experience is of ourselves, how can we--as actors or analysts--know others and enter into any organized social life?  Dilthey escaped from this potentially radical subjectivism by asserting that because we are primarily experiencing ourselves in the world, we are always trying to understand others, not just ourselves, as part of that process.  "Extending over several people, mental creations and communities, [understanding] widens the horizon of the individual life..."  That is, experiencing and interpreting the world are at the core of our lives and interests.  Thus, the object of human studies is meaning, not rational motivations and interests they generate.  But this is not private meaning but public meaning, because this quest for meaning generates a high degree of mutual understanding and general categories.

  2. the symbolic:  Thus, the hermeneutic turn is towards symbolic analysis, aiming at the ways people give meaning to their world, the meaningful frameworks by which they create, inhabit, perpetuate their life-worlds.  Here, however, we must note one of the indeterminacies of Geertz's positionsósome would say it is an evasion.  That is, he is a progenitor of "symbolic anthropology," and yet more often than not he has turned away from any systematic symbolic analysis.  Indeed, he argues that culture should not be treated purely as a "symbolic system" and analyzed for its "underlying structures.  The "proper object" of cultural analysis is "the informal logic of everyday life" (the quoted phrases are from "Thick Description"; see Alexander 327 passim)

  3. the humanistic:  Geertz "aims for expositions which retain the individuality and complexity of human behavior," as in literature



3.  There have been many challenges to Geertz's orientation.


  1. Some dispute his claim that the scientific method is necessarily dehumanizing.

  2. Some question whether people reveal the essence of their culture through their symbolic forms (e.g., they themselves are largely unaware of the significance of their symbols).

  3. Some have questioned the commitment to synchrony that a "rendering" of the cultural web of an act or event or behavior requires (e.g., Roseberry).

  4. Others dispute his celebration of an "outdoor psychology" and his deprecation of the significance to anthropology of just how people internalize meaning (e.g., Strauss and Quinn 1997).


4.  Geertz's prose


More than many anthropologists, Geertz's distinctive prose style has attracted the attention and judgment of most readersóit is maddening to some and scintillating to others (e.g., the passage on his own career trajectory above).  The historian Simon Schama described Reubensís art as ìoutrageously gratuitous demonstrations of virtuosity.î  A reviewer of Schama's own book then applied to Schamaís prose style, but to continue the chain of allegations, there are some who would thus describe Geertz's writing style!


"It's invigorating to stretch one's mind on the Nautilus machine of his prose" [Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, quoted in Moore 1996:238]


Paul Rabinow, in a review of Geertz's memoir in AA 98(4):888-889, takes up one of Geertz's early sentences:  "There is order in it all of some sort, but it is the order of a squall or a street market: nothing metrical" (p. 2).  To which Rabinow complains: "This writing is vintage Geertz; it contains a hedged assertion, two analogies, and a seeming contrast.  Yet, with all due respect, one may wonder, are squalls and street markets ordered in the same way?  And, how are they opposed to metrics?"